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Come meet the cliché. But at the same time if you can draw yourself away from the beaches and bars,
you'll find a safe easy region to travel with loads to discover. Just remember there is
a world out there that is not South East Asia to also discover.
We always like to say, it is worth looking, if you have not already, at the example layout to see the guidelines each section of information is based upon.
This is where most backpackers start and for good reason. There's plenty to see/do, life's fun, cheap, easy and fairly safe. There's however something clichéd about the region and many grow tired of the crowds while a certain type of backpacker keeps coming back. Nonetheless, miss the likes of Thailand's beaches, Angkor and the Philippines at your peril.
Remember what follows are only basic snapshot summaries. If you have decided these are some of the countries you want to visit and need more planning information then you are strongly recommended to complement what you find here with a planning guide. Trust us, it will make life much easier. If you are set on going and need a guidebook or reading material please see a list of recommended guides/books here (go on, have a look!). All guides/books can be viewed in more detail and click-through purchased with Amazon in the UK, US or Canada. Plus shopping through the site is a good way to say thank you (if you have been helped out); to see why click here.
Intro: Indonesia represents an enormous area to explore, with most travellers focusing only on small parts. Its islands offer fabulously varied scenery, from volcanoes to idyllic beaches and desert. This can be one of the most rewarding of all Asian destinations, but with some 17,000 islands (the world's largest archipelago) too little time or patience and too much travel can turn a trip into a miserable stressful race between islands with some very hot/humid weather and shitty roads (and drivers). Equally Indonesia is no Thailand and those looking for universally easy transport and (Southern Bali aside) a party atmosphere, will be sadly disappointed.
A long standing (if not the longest) traveller favourite and firmly on the South East-Asian 'Banana Pancake Trail', Indonesia in general is probably the most varied country in the region. Comparing the tourist centres/resorts of Bali with the mountains of Irian Jaya is an impossible task. The distance between Aceh in the West and Papua in the East is more than 4,000 kms (2,500 miles), comparable to the distance between New York City and San Francisco.
Few however get past Bali and near-by Islands. Although for good reasons, Bali is a name synonymous with paradise and with an international airport to boot, likewise nearby islands are cheaper and easier/quicker to access than from Jakarta. From Bali you can easily get the once fabled and inaccessible Gilli Islands, arrange boat trips to see dragons on Komodo/Rinca and hop on tours/flights to the temple and volcanic highlights of Java.
It is certainly true that when many think of Indonesia they think of Bali, the 'jewel-in-the crown' of the Indonesian tourist industry. Bali does have much to offer from a place to kick back, the fabulous Ubud to great sweeping beaches and excellent waves. However, on the whole it represents everything Indonesia is not and in its blackest spots (Kuta), hosts some of the worst tourists you will find anywhere. Bali is not to be missed, but is not a good reflection of Indonesia.
Nevertheless away from the small island of Bali it has to be noted that there are huge chunks of Indonesia that are not only a pain to get too, but have limited facilities for visitors and are of not much interest (compared to other parts of South East Asia). At the end of the day many just prefer Thailand (although Indonesia is better value and less crowded).
Others like Indonesia simply because it is not Thailand and has a greater sense of adventure attached to it. Nevertheless this is still South-East Asia and has the same flavours and same kind of travellers as elsewhere in the region. Some will love it, others will be slightly disappointed.
As many do now know, Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim nation and many seem to be put off exploring since the two Bali bombings and other incidents such as small attacks on cafés in Jakarta. Don't be. With the same common sense that needs applying everywhere, there is no problem (with terrorism at least; there are always dangers wherever you are, from buses, boats, etc). At the time of the bombings, some governments advised not travelling to Bali (even South East Asia) - crazy advice. Not spending any time in Kuta or Jakarta is better advice - bomb or no bomb! No tourism will literary kill many parts of this nation. Indonesia is not the Middle East or anything like it. It is undoubtedly South-East Asian in feel.
Indonesia has suffered great upheaval in the last ten or so years - everything from peaceful demonstrations to armed conflict. However, the situation in Indonesia is often exaggerated by western media, making it seem like the whole place is in turmoil. There has been problem in areas of Aceh, Central Sulawesi Province (especially Palu, Poso and Tentena), Maluku Province (especially Ambon), Papua and West Papua, all of which have experienced unrest in the past, but as we write this are calm and typically life is simple. Indeed Ache has become a recent travellers favorite with almost off of the recent problems behind the region. Equally a reputation of problems that keeps mainstream backpackers away are just what it needs to attracts those searching for the next 'beach' to places as stunning and hard to reach as the Banda Islands in Maluku.
Still it pays to keep in touch with the news when in the country outside of Bali, Lombok (and around) and Java. Equally, Indonesians do seem a little crazy (just look at the way they drive)!
Lowlights: Jakarta, Medan, Kuta (touristy landing pad of Bali), Surabaya.
Visa strategy: The Indonesian Government requires nationals from most countries to purchase a tourist visa on arrival at one of the main air or sea ports. A 7-day transit visa on arrival (at pretty much all common entry points) costs around US$10 and a 30 day visa costs US$35 per person (have the cash on you, in exact change US$ helps - unless in Bali where it does not matter and you can even use a credit card). A 30 day visa is extendible for another 30 days. Be aware that Immigration officials calculate the 30-day period as follows: your arrival day is counted as your first day, and you must leave the country on the 30th or 60th day! After 60 days it is US$20 a day fine if you overstay, or get a new [social] visa If you are not arriving at one of the main points of entry you will need to obtain a visa prior to travel. The cost in advance varies depending on the country of application, but seems to be about $35-60US depending on where you apply and where you are from.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Sumatra is right on the equator - so often hot or wet, but mountains can be quite cold and snow can be found on peaks in central Irian Jaya. The seasonal variations between wet and dry are a little varied for different parts of the country and you are best to consult a more detailed guide book, but generally speaking travel is fine all year round and wet season downpours last only a few hours. Even the driest periods seem damp, hot and humid in most parts.
Typical tourist trail: A popular stop for many looking to explore SE Asia away from the mainland. Cheap and easy budget airline flights from Singapore to Surabaya, Jakarta and Bali aid traveller-traffic. Relatively few make the journey overland from the SE Asian mainland, but it is quite easy and Bali with its international airport and paradise invoking name is clearly the main tourist point.
Most starting from Bali will either stay there (there is plenty to see/do) or take a ferry to the tiny Gilli isles or Lombok. The more adventurous will take trips either overland or by air to Flores where Komodo dragons can be seen nearby or arrange a trip to one of the temples or volcanoes in Java. Very few take in Jakarta for good reason or other more remote islands (also for good reasons: effort and time required). At the other end of the country Sumatra hosts the steady stream of travellers that come from the South East Asian mainland and with progress in Aceh some travellers are finding long forgotten gems in that region which are widely publicised in guides.
Getting off the beaten track: With such a vast area, getting off the beaten track is easy given the right amount of time and money. One such area is the Bird's Head Peninsula of West Papua, the Indonesian part of New Guinea (aka Irian Jaya), for which Marc Todts has contributed an excellent summary - click here to see it.
Costs: Endless troubles ensure the Rupiah is excellent value; prices vary from island to island but are always reasonable. $25 a day is no problem. A long stay in resort towns in Bali (such as Kuta and around), yacht tours to islands (such as to see Komodo Dragons) or similar can increase this significantly.
Money: ATM's commonplace in populous or tourist areas and in most cities and islands, take supply of cash out to further islands with you.
Getting around depends on the island. On major islands such as Java or anywhere tourists normally go, it's a breeze. Off the beaten track in Kalimantan or West Papua there are few roads and options are more limited.
In general transportation is by buses some good, others not so. Between backpacker centres there is a well-developed network of tourist buses and for a premium you can have comfort and direct routing. Prices are many times greater than local buses, but still cheap and save a lot of time and hassle. However in times of reduced tourist numbers, some services are suspended and off the beaten-track you just won't find them.
Train services available only in Java and parts of Sumatra. Several trains run between Jakarta, Yogyakarta and Surabaya. Most trains are comfortable (AC sleepers), however prices for different classes and trains vary enormously.
Boats to get from island to island. Since you have to cross water, travel can be time consuming. PELNI, the state owned shipping company has numerous vessels, operating on about two week loop schedules. Ships are AC and first class cabins have TV and privacy. Timetables on line. There are places on yachts, normally heading from Bali to Komodo. Off the beaten track, inter-island exploring can be expensive and time consuming especially in Maluku (spice islands).
Air, considering the difficulties and expense with getting far afield, internal flights become a very attractive option with an excellent network and some mainstream budget airlines. Some local airlines have questionable safety records.
Guide book: Lonely Planet. For a full list of regional guides and details on the LP, please click here.
Locals: Vary from island to island. Few would say that Indonesians are unfriendly, but this is far from a 'land of a thousand smiles'.
Other travellers: If you are a European, imagine Ibiza, if you're an American, imagine Cancún. This is how many (a particular type of person) see Bali. Outside Bali, typical South East Asian travellers. In many parts of Indonesia you will find yourself happily alone.
Tourist factor: Bali and surrounding islands are extremely well trodden - 9/10, most other areas 7/10 - 5/10.
Many of Indonesia's nicer destinations are slowly finding their way into the mainstream with more tourists and better connections in the same way as the Thai islands. A perfect example is the tiny Gilli Islands off Lombok, once an off-the-beaten track reserve of backpackers and a solid feature on the South East Asian trail. These islands despite being fairly close to Bali required a lengthy (long day) journey from Bali to Lombok, bus within Lombok and then second ferry. The three islands had rustic accommodation, perfect beaches and were a true get away from the worst of Bali.
Today the islands are accessible with ease by direct (although expensive) fast boats making even day trips possible and are suffering the same fate as parts of Bali. Such is unfortunately synonymous with not just Indonesia, but the whole of South East Asia which one day might look like Pattaya, Phuket or Kuta or everywhere there is a nice beach and easy connections.
Still such notes sound sour and there is always fresh ground to be broken in South East Asia and especially elsewhere.
Accommodation: Accommodation can be basic on remoter islands and quality/price can depend largely on demand (season and local holidays/travellers). For the most part you can find somewhere to stay cheaply and with ease.
Hot water: Won't be available in cheaper rooms
Average cost: As little as US$5, average US$10-15. AC will increase this substantially.
Communications: Internet on most main islands, including some very fast connections and Wi-Fi in many mid-range hotels and cafes/restaurants - especially in parts of Java and Bali.
Media: (Indonesia varies a lot due to its sheer scale)
Books: Many bookshop in Bali and major towns in Java and Sumatra. Wide-range of international magazines also easy to find.
TV: In more expensive hotels. Movies played in restaurants and bars in tourist areas.
Film: Fascinating windows into Indonesia's recent history are the book/film: The year of living dangerously and the shocking/stunning documentary: The Act of Killing.
Food: Indonesian cooking is distinct within the region and good street food is easy to find. Chicken, shrimp and peanut sauces feature heavily. Eating decently is never really a problem and fresh fruit juices are abundant (including avocado with chocolate sauce).
Vegetarians: Fine, look for 'temple meat' which is Tofu or Gado-gado which is a traditional dish of vegetables served with a peanut sauce. It should be noted that strict vegetarians will struggle as prawn/shrimp is used as a base for many sauce and prawn crackers are often added to the top of dishes. You can find some vegetarian restaurants and Ubud (central Bali) in particular will cater to all diets including vegans and health freaks.
Hassle and annoyance factor: Can be hard work with tons of hassle in major tourist destinations especially in Bali. More relaxed off the beaten track.
Women alone: Normally okay, be careful and remember this is a Muslim nation. Mild harassment is common, but not a major problem. It's easy to say you are married and dress a little conservatively.
Local poisons for the body: Depending on island, soft drugs easily available, although in the likes of Kuta (Bali) a little too easy and questions are raised as to just how safe it is buying off the street. In addition, magic mushrooms can be found with ease in the wet season and feature on many Bali menus year-round, if that's your bag.
Intro: Malaysia (coupled with Singapore) is one of the most pleasant, hassle-free countries to visit in South-East Asia. It can be described as buoyant and wealthy with a cultural infusion of Malay, Chinese, Indian and indigenous groups that you just don't get in Thailand. The peninsular has good transport, jungle, beaches, culture and is a good chance to escape some of the Thailand crowds. Most travellers zip through, which is why others say that it is SE Asia's hidden jewel (although others might label it as dull after a long stay in Thailand/Indochina). East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak) is the 'Borneo' travellers speak of and is
arguably more adventurous and fun. Malaysia is fairly developed and easy to travel in, but nowhere as exotic, unhinged or cheap as the likes of Indonesia or Thailand. Most visitors tend to stick to the big city lights of Kuala
Lumpur or the colonial Penang and Cameron Highlands Hill Stations or the stunning (but slightly upmarket, however managed development (Thailand take note)) Langkawi.
Despite the very obvious attractions of the [Malaysian] peninsular, for many without the temples, bargain prices and nightlife of Thailand/Indochina, the favoured destination is the island of East Malaysia, which a offers the best of Malaysia: wildlife, caves, longhouses and Mt Kinabalu.
Lowlights: Penang. The whole country has a lower key and less fun/vibrant culture when compared to Thailand. Some find Sabah not challenging enough (or as they expected) and overcrowded in places. Many island resorts are more expensive than peers elsewhere in the region (but a good escape from the worst aspects of the Thai islands).
Visa strategy: Free on arrival. Most Western nationalities can enter Malaysia without a visa, and are normally issued 30, 60, or 90 day entry permit stamps.
Typical tourist trail: A dash from Thailand to Singapore. Normally taking in a national park (jungle train ride), a beach stop in Penang and the capital - KL. More and more travellers are flying to East Malaysia on the island of Borneo.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Malaysia like most of SEA is hot and humid all year. It's best to avoid the November to January rainy season on Peninsula Malaysia's East coast if you want to enjoy the beaches, but general travel is fine. The time to see turtles on the east coast is between May and September.
Guide book: Any, not really vital unless off the beaten track. For a full list of regional guides and other reading please click here.
Costs: $30-40 per day, normally good value, just not as cheap as Thailand or Indonesia. Time in big cities and beach resorts increases your need to spend.
Money: ATMs plentiful, but limited in East Malaysia. Credit card advances normally commission free and travellers cheques can normally be exchanged for a better rate than cash. Getting money off the beaten track on islands is tricky and it's worth stocking up before heading out.
Good buses, roads and trains, some routes (jungle railway) worth seeing. Of buses, there are four basic types, non-AC state, non-AC interstate and AC express (or VIP). Finding a bus going your way is normally easy, but most stop often en route. AC express buses are the fastest. Non-AC are good if you need to get on and off (i.e. a bit of spontaneous exploring). On trains students are entitled to a 50% discount making the fare comparable to buses. Ten or thirty day rail passes can be bought, but must be purchased outside the country. Both trains and buses make international connections to Thailand and Singapore with ease.
Malaysia is also one of the only places in SEA where renting a car is a great idea and not too expensive.
The Jungle Railway is a daily eastern line service which stops at every station (every 15-20 min or so) between Tumpat (close to the Thai border) and Gemas. It's 3rd class only so no air-con and no reservations, and has a tendency to linger in stations while other regular trains overtake. This service is most popular to travel to Taman Negara National Park (Jerantut) or the Perhentian Islands (closest station to Kota Bharu is Wakaf Bahru). It's a great name, and you see a lot of jungle, but less than when you are actually in the jungle itself.
Getting to East Malaysia (Borneo) is also easy and sometimes flying is cheaper than the normal road/water combinations.
Locals: You notice instantly that Malaysians are a lot more diverse and more open than their Thai neighbours (in a genuine way at least - not only of you are buying something from them).
Other travellers: Typical backpacker types. Many older travellers.
Tourist factor: 7/10
Accommodation: You can find a cheap bed almost anywhere (except resort islands that have gone very up market). In tourist/transit bus and train stations, touts come with a photo and map of the guesthouse they represent. On beaches, Thailand style A-frame huts are hard to find and most accommodation is more expensive and aimed at package tourists. If you want an ultra-cheap time on a picture perfect developed beach, head to the Philippines, Indonesia or Thailand. Nevertheless quality does make up for the higher prices in many instances.
Hot water: Fine, limited in jungle areas and ultra-cheap places.
Average cost: $15-20 (up to $30 in Kuala Lumpur or Langkawi)
Communications: Widespread Internet
Media: New book shops in very civilised KL, no real traveller scene, so limited second hand books, but plenty first hand.
Food: Normally pretty good, standard Asian fare.
Vegetarians: Fine, good variety
Hassle and annoyance factor: Limited
Women alone: Not really a problem
Intro: How things have changed in and with Burma. Years back and long before presidents of the USA were visiting, simply asking questions about on newsgroups/internet forums would have had you shouted down on ethical grounds of visiting and in so supporting an oppressive regime. Now more and more people are discovering one of Asia's hidden jewels, with tourism growth at record levels and real change happening with the country's leadership. Burma or Myanmar (Me-an-mar) - which we should probably now refer to it by - is a land of wonders, gentle culture and welcoming smiles.
With the new found political acceptability of tourism, relaxed sanctions and [slow] process of change, there is no doubt that tourism over the coming years will rocket in what is Southeast Asia's largest mainland country. Possibly filling sleepy historic towns and villages with ugly concrete hotels, bars selling 'buckets' to gap-years and locals become tourist jaded. The speed of development these days in Yangon is frantic and land crossings by foreigners are now permitted, you'll find Wi-Fi, ATMs and banana pancakes - all recently non-existent in a place where even getting a Coke meant it was imported and internet was banned for most. If you have not visited Burma and enjoy the vibe of travel in South East Asia - get there as soon as you can.
Highlights: Bagan (Pagan) , the people and 'removed from the west' culture.
Although results are mixed and the effect and time to do so is considerable, getting off the tourist trail
Lowlights: Last remanence of Government restrictions, package 'tour group' tourists at major attractions. Difficulties plus lack of infrastructure in exploring away from tourist trial. Serious security issues afflict certain parts of the country with the political situation still far from perfect.
Dangers: If you can get there successfully (restricted area), the Shan state has Burmese and Thai Guerrillas present. Watch out for the Burmese new year (March-April) - not only will you be sprayed with water, but everything grinds to a halt and transport gets booked solid. There are numerous other restricted areas away from the tourist heartland of which permits to visit can be applied for in Rangoon at the MTT office.
Getting around: By road, getting South or West of Rangoon or to the far North is difficult and will require some serious adventure, normally riding in trucks. To avoid very bumpy and windy buses or pick-up truck rides, split the cost of a taxi, between four. Boat travel is available from Bagan to Mandalay or vice versa. There are trains, but slow, uncomfortable and dirty on limited routes - buses are better value.
There are now 9 airlines: (including) Air Mandalay, Air Bagan, Air KBZ, Yangon Airways and Myanmar airways. Note that Mandalay airport is a one hour drive from Mandalay and if there's one route you might want to do overland it's the Mandalay – Bagan route (using Monywa as a stopover). Some airlines do have air passes for sale, which offers a small saving compared to booking flights individually and has to be booked in advance.
Getting there: Air Asia is probably the cheapest route in from Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur though you may get a good deal with Thai or other airlines for the long haul trip. There are now connections from Kunming to Mandalay and Air Asia flies Bangkok to Mandalay which allows you to do a loop rather than backtracking to Yangon. Other options are from Bangladesh, Delhi, Qatar and Singapore.
Almost all land borders are closed to Bangladesh, Laos, India. The land borders to Thailand is open but - essentially this is a fly-in, fly-out destination. Most people loop Yangon and back, but since there are flights out of the country both from Yangon and Mandalay it's better to start in one and finish in the other to cut down on travel.
It's now possible to go by road from Tachilek (opp Mae Sai) to Kengtung. Permits are not needed, just the full visa. Getting to Taunggyi and on to Mandalay on via this means is open to which report you read - knowing Burma, I wouldn't bank on doing it - this is the Shan State and to leave the country this way would require a permit for the area. The road is in a bad condition and the trip takes a good while and energy.
SLOWLY Myanmar is changing for the better. In November 2010 the regime held a general election, admittedly heavily circumscribed but the first in two decades. It then released the opposition leader and Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi. A formal transfer from military to civilian rule took place in 2011. No one doubts that the soldiers are still in charge, but things are changing... for the better it is hoped.
In 2012 after almost 60 years Coca-Cola went on sale again in Burma. Change, for sure. For the better?
In mid-2014 Myanmar joined the ranks of countries moving visa applications online. Getting a visa is easy and simple due to the new one-line process. Approval takes about 72 hours and costs US$50 which you pay for by credit card. The visa is valid for 28 days and the visa approval you get on line is valid 3 months. You take that approval to your arrival point and get your entry stamp there. The system works well. The website is: http://evisa.moip.gov.mm/
Myanmar has international ATMs in every tourist destination (Yangon, Bago, the Golden Rock, Inle Lake, Mandalay, and Bagan). You should also take a little cash and make sure any you carry is USD cash in good condition of new designs (e.g. post 2009 $100 bills) – this is covered in detail in the LP and cannot be stressed enough. Some banks in Yangon and Mandalay accept Euros and the Singapore Dollar but USD is definitely the safest option. Travellers cheques are pretty useless. Kyat from an ATM makes life much easier that in days gone by.
It is worth noting that ATMs charge ~$5 per transaction in addition to the charges your bank makes and the poor exchange rates you can get. So if you don't bring some cash, it is possible to pay ~$10 to withdraw $20 for that final withdrawal for the taxi to the airport.
There is no reason to change money into FECs (pronounced feck) as they trade at the same rate as the USD. In the past you had to change USD (around 200) into Foreign Exchange Certificates (FECs) when you enter the country - this is no longer enforced. The FEC rule has been abolished, but they are still legal tender (at less than face value) and officials may keep up pretences for all those bribes to keep flowing in.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Hot or wet all year round. It is well worth planning your trip to avoid the worst of the heat (March to May). October to February would be best, Yangon is pleasant, in the interior it can get a little cold during the night at higher altitude.
Costs: Admission fees which are foreigner priced add up (and btw go on the whole directly to the government - see right) and so do long distance taxi rides which are useful if you need to cut down on travel time and increase comfort - but on the whole it's generally cheap (however hotel prices can surprise during the peak season in popular destinations). $25-35 per day
Tourist factor: On the beaten track 7-8/10, off it 3/10. Burma has quite a compact circuit and you should not expect to be alone (other backpackers and many tour groups) on the Rangoon-Mandalay-Bagan-Inle-Rangoon loop.
Communications: Internet / Wi-Fi places are popping up all over the place but are often painfully slow. You can also buy a local SIM card - your home mobile may not roam.
Locals: Incredibly friendly and welcoming, hard not to feel sorrow for their situation.
Other travellers: Some awful package tourists, others generally nice guys. In recent years much more of an overflow of the banana pancake crowd.
Accommodation: Many guest houses and hotels, try to find those that are locally owned. There are a few hostels in Yangon now, although these are far from cheap (~$15/bed). The recent surge in visitors, in popular destinations such as Mandalay, Bagan, Ngapali and Nyaung Shwe and Inle Lake places to stay do get already packed during high season. With this demand prices increase very steeply. Conversely out-of-season and off-the-beaten track, many places are empty, so always bargain - you should be able to get a good room for $20-$35 and a faction of this outside of tourist hubs. Prices are more expensive in Yangon, yet there are plenty of cheaper rooms available.
Hot water: Can be a problem if at the cheaper end
Average cost: $20-30
Books: Some copies of Burmese Days floating around in Bagan, which is a good, if somewhat depressing read. There are, of-course, numerous great books written on the struggle for democracy in Burma, but these are best read before you go and not while there for obvious reasons. One to read on your trip might be, The Trouser People: A Story of Burma in the Shadow of the Empire. It's a mixture of a travelogue and historical book about Burma, the historical bit focusing on a explorer type called George Scott, (who brought his beloved game of football to Burma) about 100 years ago. It's a great read. The ISBN is 15824324
Food: Pretty limited, but if you find it real Bamar food is great and as good as Thai food. Western style food is not done very well.
Hassle and annoyance factor: There are plenty of things to get annoyed about, but the people themselves are never a concern. Very friendly, laid back culture although some limited hassle is starting to appear in Bagan and parts of Yangon.
Women alone: Fine
Intro: Many say the Philippines just isn't South East Asia. Sure it's the only Catholic country in the region, an island nation (over seven thousand of them) which can't be 'just popped over the border to', English is widely spoken and of course it sits well away from a mainland and off any practical route. In fact the Philippines is every bit South East Asia - all the good bits. Great beaches, dramatic volcanoes, a colourful transport system, diverse culture, hill tribe & jungle treks and stunning rice terraces. The only thing that really sets the Philippines apart from the likes of Thailand et al. is in comparison you'll have much of it to yourself. Forget Vietnam this, or Malaysia that, you can keep them all because when you've seen the rest, head to the Philippines. The Philippines is ultra-diverse, there's something for pretty much everyone (from swimming with Whale Sharks, cheap diving and forgotten beaches to good surfing, even better nightlife, hill tribes; the list goes on). Very civilised in parts, fair value for money (when the Peso is weak) and the fact English is widely spoken is a massive bonus for many. Sometimes it seems the only ones who have discovered these beautiful islands are the Koreans/Japanese and the sizable number of westerners who have settled and walk around with a Filipino on their arm. Alex Garland's a huge fan and so will just about anyone who's been. Mabuhay!
Great nightlife (cheap beer, a young vibe and plenty of excellent live music) , undoubtedly some of the world's best beaches (some maybe crowded, but with a little time and travel you can find your own paradise), underwater gardens (for divers and non-divers alike, the coral and many wrecks are stunning - great value scuba and easy access [for snorkelers] coral (Sabang on Mindoro as well as Puerto Galera).
Trekking (there are many volcanoes to climb), but most require a good deal of planning and determination, however the highland areas of Luzon are easy to explore, stunning and relative uncrowded), countless vast shopping malls and that Latin fire 'stroke' Asian grace of the long suffering Filipino. Other places of note: Vigan, around Banaue, Sagarda, Bohol and anywhere offering a cold San Miguel and a massage on a/the White beach at sunset.
The jury's still out on Boracay, beautiful as it may be, some find it just too developed and expensive when compared to other options (still others love its choice of bars/restaurants/hotels, amazing beaches and kite surfing). Damaged coral and lengthy bus journeys where air/sea is not an option. Manila makes a good first impression on few (although it has plenty to offer) and urban areas do seem forlorn compared to the dynamism of modern Bangkok/KL.
Horrendous traffic in big cities and certainly Manila where a four kilometre/mile journey can take an hour. Food, Filipino food itself its actually rather limited given the high standards in the rest of Asia. In places, like in Thailand, sex tourism is obvious and can leave a bad taste in the mouth if you come across it. Finally not all, but some boats are obviously overloaded and not for the faint hearted in rough seas.
Visa strategy: A three week visa is free on arrival for most nationalities. Extensions allowing you a total stay of two months cost around US$30 in Manila, Boracay, Cebu and many other places. Unless you are getting someone to organise it for you the hassle is less in the likes of Boracay or Baguio. Second extensions are more costly and regulations get stricter the longer you stay.
Hiking: The mountains and rice terraces of north Luzon are a worthwhile alternative to the over-commercialised hill tribe treks of northern Thailand. Banaue/Sagarda can be somewhat of a pain to reach, so you will probably want to make the most of your time there with a two to three day DIY trek. When it comes to the most attractive (and therefore most popular routes) guides can easily be arranged, but not as essential as locals will tell you the way. You will find some basic places to stay if making a loop from the spectacular terraces in Batad. Private transport is however necessary in many cases as public jeepneys are not so common on the more remote roads. Away from mountain provinces, hiking needs plenty of stamina and even more water as it's going to be hot.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Hot almost all year around, there is however a highland area to escape to where, in winter months, it can get fairly chilly.
Typical tourist trail: Virtually all flights land in Manila (although you can enter the country in Cebu or regionally at the ex. USA airbase of Angeles/Clark - 2-4 hours North of Manila). Manila like any big Asian city has nightmare traffic and heavy pollution. From there on, there is no tourist trail as such. Many travellers will leave by air for Cebu (onto Bohol) or Boracay. Many will bus north to Baguio and onto Banaue and further north. For those on limited time the closest resort/dive site is Puerto Galera.
Costs: US$25-40, depending on your passion for Scuba, beer and AC rooms. Heading into rural areas you will be hard pushed to spend even half of this.
Money: ATMs plentiful in any large town. However don't get caught out by lack of ATMs at Clark Airport (where inter-regional budget flights sometimes land and you'll need some cash for the two-four hour bus ride to Manila) and on Palawan. Most hard currency will change in big cities and tourist enclaves. US dollars as good as Filipino Peso.
There are problems in the Philippines that are occasionally splashed across western media. In a very simplistic form problems emanate from the large southern island of Mindanao which is the country's largest Muslim enclave. Travel in some parts of Mindanao is safe, but anyone heading this way will of course do some careful research, since there have been several kidnapping incidents of late.
There are a number of areas on Mindanao and islands off it which should be considered no go areas. On the whole, the Philippines is safe and authorities are pro-active to tackle any threat including the few minor bombings that do happen from time to time. A quick visit to your country's foreign office site will give you much more accurate (if slightly alarmist) current info.
Swimming with Whale Sharks: Just off the coast of a small village called Donsol is one of the only places in the world where Whale Sharks can be anything close to guaranteed and where, if you want, you can swim with them (scuba not allowed). Donsol is about an hour or two south, of Legazpi, about 14hrs bus trip from Manila, or by ferry head to Masbate Town (three sailings a week from Cebu (overnight)), connect to smaller craft (1hr) and then less than 30mins to Donsol. All trips must be arranged through a government-run centre (15mins past Donsol)). They are the only people who can arrange a boat and crew. You can rent mask, snorkel, etc. You have to pay a registration fee and the whole experience will set you back something like US$70 per person (based on two sharing - cheaper if more). The price is more likely to go up than down in the future and you are by no means guaranteed to see anything.
A trip would normally start at about 9am and run until 1pm. You don't go far off the Donsol coast. The water is far from clear and a spotter will look out for shadows on the water (a sunny day makes his job much easier). If you have only a little bit of luck you should see at least one, but you could be swimming alongside for less than 10 seconds before it dives. Visibility is not brilliant. On a really good day, you could see five or six and get a few minutes trying to keep up with one of these enormous creatures. It's a lot of money for the Philippines and you could see nothing; conversely, if you have the luck it is a fantastic and unique experience.
PADI courses and dive trips are available in all tourist beach resorts, Puerto Galera being a great place to get certified. A PADI 3/4 day course will cost between US$250-300, instruction can be found in most European languages, Japanese/Korean without problem. Dives including equipment run at around US$25-35. Coral will look damaged in some places, but for the most part you will be spoilt, especially if you are keen to travel a little away from big resorts. There are also some great wreck dives. Diving is to the Philippines what trekking is to Nepal. It's cheap, easy and among the world's best.
What to buy: The Filipino obsession with 'malling' takes many visitors by surprise. This may be one of the best performing economies in the region and the retired colonial power of America obviously has a huge influence but still the malls of Manila and a few other places are huge (even by American standards), ultra-numerous and of an amazing variety. Shops range from local clothing discounters up through Filipino retailers like Oxygen, Bench and Human, onto international brands such as Top Shop, Gap, Zara and M&S, right up to the likes of North Face, Armani, Diesel and Ralph Lauren - to name a few. Basically everything is here and it's all excellent value.
Manila is a shopaholic's paradise and if the Peso is weak, it's good value. In Manila, for quality brands the Powerhouse is a first good stop, SM malls are also huge (many cities) and for one of the biggest, Manila's Mega Mall or the new Mall of Asia. Try not being overwhelmed by any of these. ATMs are plentiful and all stores accept debit/credit cards. There is also a good range of souvenirs and for those who play the guitar, they are cheap/easy to pick up.
Comment: As a Filipino, I must commend you for your good narrative about the Philippines. Well-balanced and enthusiastic. Your publication does not suffer from bias by over rating Philippine neighbours, a practice common among many travel publications. Wholesome tourists normally leave the Philippines with lasting memories of our beautiful landscapes, rich culture and history, and more importantly our people.
Internal flights: There are numerous flights each day to and from Manila to Cebu, Boracay, Mindanao, Palawan and many destinations north of Manila in Luzon. With destinations such as Cebu, no forward planning is necessary - you can book with ease at the airport or an agency the same day. However, at Easter and other holidays and for destinations less frequently served, such as Legazpi, booking ahead is required. As a rough guide one-way Manila-Cebu is around 15-2000Pesos (around 35-50US$). Due to the nation's topography, flying is often the only alternative to lengthy ferry journeys.
Buses: One of the joys of the Philippines is you don't need to use buses too much as air/ferry travel is for the most part more practical. The one exception is heading north in Luzon. The northern highlands make for slow windy going. When you do need to hop on a bus you will find an excellent network with frequent departures by many companies. Bus quality is good, but not on par with Thailand's finest.
Others: Jeepneys run around most towns and can be used for small hops, although FX taxis (mini-vans that leave when full) will be faster. It is possible to hire a motorbike in some places (e.g. Bohol) with limited hassle.
Taxis and drivers can be hired for longer journeys (drivers are always keen). Rates are on the most part reasonable if there are a few of you, but will seem very expensive for the Philippines. Nonetheless this is easiest option in many cases. Moto-taxis (with side-car) will ferry you around smaller towns, and taxis in larger towns all have meters that most drivers use no problems.
It's really not possible to cover the many sea options in a small summary like this, so this is only a quick guide.
For short hops to popular destinations there are excellent larger fast boats. For cheaper travel there are slower big boats.
For less popular crossings, smaller fast sealed inland waterway type boats (like Cambodian inland fast ferries) and much slower open air large out-riggers.
The worst are the smaller fast boats, but they are normally only used for short crossings.
These are normally close to overloaded and not really recommended for rough seas.
For longer journeys, large vessels leave overnight with several accommodation options. Normally these are (cheapest first): outside covered bunks (many together), inside AC bunks (many together, gets very cold), cabin doubles/quads and en suite cabins. The most expensive option will be about the same as the comparable internal flight, cheaper options are great value and you arrive refreshed (well kind of). Sea conditions do, of course, vary but for the most part it's normally calm; larger boats are fairly stable. Lastly, and most the expensive option, for short trips you might like to or need to hire your own out-rigger to reach the forgotten beach/island or snorkelling trip. For the record, you can reach Malaysia by ferry, but flying makes a lot more sense. There are no passenger boats from the Asian mainland, such as Vietnam, China or Hong Kong, or from Taiwan to the Philippines, close as they might seem.
Guide book: Both the Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide have good looking and fairly new guides out. Neither is that good. Used the Rough Guide only a few months after it was published and it was full of errors. Still, the context chapters were excellent and the quality and accuracy was found to be better than the LP counterpart. Philippines chapters in SEA multi-country guides are very poor. See more info on Rough Guide Philippines, which is the recommended guide, click here. Using this site to buy through Amazon contributes massively to its continuation.
Locals: Although English is an official language, don't expect every local you meet to be 100% proficient, although the basic understanding most have and the excellent understanding many have, makes for good interaction and ease of travel. Apart from a few exceptions, the Filipinos are a very friendly and welcoming bunch in a way you would never find in the Western world.
Other travellers: Few of the typical SE Asian backpackers (but increasingly more) and fewer of the younger crowd or Israelis you find in Thailand. Many western travellers are those with Filipino wives/girlfriends/kids/homes. Popular destination for Japanese, Taiwanese and Koreans, many of whom honeymoon or learn English here.
Accommodation: Accommodation and cost vary substantially. It's fair to say there is not the quantity and/or range of accommodation as in other parts of SE Asia, although there is enough. Costs tend to be slightly higher, but if you want to go basic there's plenty and the prices are rock bottom. Manila has only a few traveller-focused guesthouses, recommended highly in guidebooks and almost always fully booked. There are other options such as the good value mid-range hotels in the Manila district of Malate if you crave AC. Beach resorts have plenty of fancy accommodation geared at Japanese and Korean holiday makers. In resorts good value low/mid-range places aren't too plentiful or great value, but can be found. As with anywhere if you want AC you dearly pay for it. Off the beaten track accommodation gets much more basic, but is really cheap. As in Indonesia the mayor or village chief of small out-of-the-way places may be able to help you find a place to stay when there is no hotel.
Hot water: Not always in cheap places.
Average cost: From as little as US$5 in the north to on average US$15 to US$25.
Communications: Easy cheap internet access almost everywhere and some good call centres in major cities. Mobile phone use is widespread (Filipinos are text mad) so SIM cards are cheap and easy to buy. On the beaten track and major beach resorts, Wi-Fi spots are easy to find.
Tourist factor: 6/10, most visitors limit themselves to resorts such as Boracay.
Books: In larger towns (Cebu, Manila, Davao etc.) no problem finding international magazines and a good range of books / guide books. There are several daily English language newspapers.
TV: In any accommodation from basic mid-range up. Excellent selection of cable channels, live sport, news and a wonderful channel that runs karaoke songs and words 24hrs a day.
Food: For seafood eaters this may well be heaven. Food is on the whole excellent and cheap. Meat is surprisingly popular for an island nation. A huge range of different Asian cuisines are on offer; Korean and Japanese food is particularly good. In major cities, in any one of the country's many enormous shopping malls, there is a quite unbelievable range of cheap fast-food, from western international brands and local copies to Thai, Japanese and Korean gigs. Many, particularly the Asian versions are excellent.
Vegetarians: Fine, especially if you are pescetarian.
Hassle and annoyance factor: Never really a problem
Women alone: Never a problem, above the normal questions and minor hassle you would expect anywhere in Asia.
Local poisons for the body: San Miguel beer is drunk in great quantities, costing only slightly more than soft drinks. Smoking is not a great Filipino pastime, but cigarettes are as cheap as you would expect. There is very little drug scene simply because there are not the tourist numbers, as say in Bali or Thailand, to sustain it. Anyway with life this good who needs drugs?
Vice: The Philippines has somewhat of a reputation for the sex trade and sex holidays. Take a walk through certain areas of any big town and it's easy to see why. However, prostitution is illegal. In reality (of course) most will end up touching rather than looking. Go-Go bars (where they exist, as local laws/tolerance allow) are centred in a few locations and are much the same as elsewhere in the region (although reflective of the country's Catholic culture and without 'live shows' or audacious acts found in Thailand). Most bars cater to Korean and Japanese visitors or are legacies from former military bases. Pop into any of these bars and what you will get is many gorgeous girls (many look and probably are under 18) in little dresses asking for you to buy them drinks (and/or take them home). This is hardly unique to the Philippines.
Intro: Singapore is really just a transit zone for many travellers, on their way to the beaches of Thailand, Malaysia, the myriad of Indonesian islands or Australia. It is also quite a bizarre place (coming from the rest of Asia); cars use their indicators and stop at crossings! There's none of that mayhem that makes travel so interesting (and at times stressful) in the rest of Asia. It is an expensive place by neighbouring country standards, but cheaper than Japan, Australia or Korea. In this economic powerhouse English is almost universally spoken and for its size there's loads to do but, being such a small place, after a few days (unless hitting the shops big time) you'll probably want to move on. What strikes you most is the Chinese, Malay, English and Indian traditions that seem to blend into the city. In the morning you could be on a market stall eating noodles as in Vietnam and in another part of town find Indian temples as in Madras. Then its high tea in the best British fashion with air-con, starched linen table cloths and gliding waiters. If you want 'it's a small world' Asia without breaking too much of a sweat, here's your place.
The perfect place to start any trip in Asia. You will never have to eat the same cuisine twice and can enjoy a true melting pot between East and West. It is also fabulously well connected to the rest of Asia via a network of budget airlines. Just make sure your budget is on first world standards - this is not Thailand or Indonesia!
Highlights: Zoos (there are two, a day one and a night one) and cleanliness. Amazing, brilliantly tasty, safe and cheap food from every Asian (or Western) cuisine you can imagine. Shopping, drinking Singapore Slings and marveling at it all while kicking back for a few days with zero hassle and everything you might need.
Lowlights: Raffles, electronic goods prices not too different than at home (electronics usually aren't the bargains they used to be), costs and accommodation prices.
It is hot and humid pretty much all year.
Visa strategy: Free on arrival - varies 14/30/90 days depending on citizenship and/or point of entry
Dangers: Super-safe and mega-clean. This is one place you do not want to break the law, and they have some strange ones
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Very hot almost all year around - avoid the wet, humid season. There are two monsoon seasons, December to March and then June to September, but heavy rain can occur anytime. It tends to rain in the afternoon, so head out early in the day. December to March tends to be the cooler months - but it is still hot and sweaty even then for most.
Costs: US$40-60, depending on your alcohol consumption and if you sleep in a dorm bed or want your own room. Slightly less expensive than the USA and certainly western Europe, but hugely more expensive than say Indonesia
Money: ATMs extremely plentiful along with change places
Guide book: Make some notes from someone else's guide, download a few webpage or photocopy a few pages from a guidebook. No real need for a guidebook, other than an address of a place to stay when you first arrive. All major hostels provide great info. Local guidebooks and maps can be picked up with ease cheaply or free from tourist info places.
Locals: Highly multi-ethnic population, some of whom are not too jolly (Chinese). Very helpful in general, although a bit paranoid at times.
Other travellers: Typical SE Asian teens & backpackers in transit between Asia and other parts of the world. Plus a fair amount of older travellers stopping off between Australia and Europe and an ever increasing number of Asian tourists.
Tourist factor: 6/10
Accommodation: Options have matured from cheap crash pads in and around little India (Ali's nest recommended) to hostels of excleent standards. One such establishment is the BetelBox hostel, which is friendly, has nice areas to meet other people and offers free Internet and other nice treats. It is located in the Katong/Geylang area which many think of as more interesting than Little India. If you don't want a dorm bed, many hostels offer privates or semi-private options, but for a reall room of your own, accommodation is not ultra-cheap and at the low end not great quality.
Hot water: Not always in cheap places, but certainly in the new hostels.
Average cost: SG$20+ at the lowest end in a shared room, SG$60-80+ for a basic double with a bathroom to SG$400-500 for a night in the Marina Grand with the use of probably the most impressive hotel pool anywhere in the world included if you can handle the room price (head to the roof top bar if you want a closer look)
Hassle and annoyance factor: Never a problem
Women alone: Never a problem (above norm) - totally trouble free
Local poisons for the body: Alcohol and cigarettes expensive - don't even mention drugs
Many thanks to Tjerk Jan Schuitmaker for his recent updates and insights.
Communications: Easy internet access and some call centres. International calling cards used in the many public phone boxes make calling home very easy and very cheap. Like everything in Singapore the quality is great.
Books: Some imported newspapers and expensive bookshops. There are a lot of regular bookshops and also some great second hand ones for the bargains. All with mostly English books. Strait Times is a good English language newspaper.
TV: Only in expensive hotels or hostel common areas.
Food: Singapore is one of the best places in the world to eat, since so many cultures come together, the choice is huge. Street cafes in little China and little India are your best bet for a good cheap meal. Food is cheap, especially in the Geylang Serai/Katong areas.
Vegetarians: Fine, huge choice.
Thailand is where many travellers first venture as a backpacker and although in time they may view it with contempt, they'll probably never forget how easy it was to have a good time, how friendly and fun-loving the Thais were and just how picture perfect the beaches were. Many arrive alone and/or frightened, and before they know it are having a fantastic time. Thailand is a country with huge appeal, but increasingly crowded, cheesy and full of idiots. Certainly on the tourist trail English is never a problem, travel is straightforward and relaxing is easy on some of the world's best beaches or in any one of the thousands of great bars Thailand has to offer.
There is, however much more to discover in Thailand apart from beaches and bars. Since it's easy to get around you've no excuse not to take the time to explore before being tempted by the likes of 'full moon parties' and neighbouring countries.
You might like to think about avoiding the crowds by not staying on the Khaosan Road in Bangkok and not going to Chang Mai or any well-known islands or beaches. Don't miss some ruins and a national park; hill tribe treks and full moon parties are - many feel in retrospect and when compared to other Asian activities - overrated.
Thailand may well be the easiest backpacker destination on earth and, the 'pinch of salt' (right) comment aside comes highly recommended especially for those nervous about setting off into the big wide world.
Thailand certainly has a special place in the heart of this website and many travellers, if only for one night in Bangkok and enjoying smiles, sea air, sunshine and amazing food.
Judge for yourself, but this easy, fun-filled (cheap living, cheap girls and even cheaper beer) country attracts visitors of all types from all over the world for just that purpose. There isn't much class or culture in most of the offerings to these tourists and that sight can leave a bad taste in the mouth as might be experienced in Cancun, Ayia Napa, Mykonos, Kuta and the like. Pattaya really has to be one of the worst showcases for this not just in Thailand, but worldwide.
Pattaya - though as much of an oddity it is, and admittedly a far cry from most of Thailand - does, however make an interesting example. It was set-up as Asia's first tourist resort to cater for GIs during the Vietnam war. If other parts of Asia follow this lead catering now not to GIs but to an influx of package tourists from China/Russia and others (old guys looking for young girls, Pattaya is the undisputed sex-tourism capital of the world), it's going to be a sad day - unfortunately it seems to be slowly happening. Anyone who has made a few visits to popular resorts and islands over the past ten or even five years might, and witnessing the speed of development, have already considered such an omen.
Some now consider (especially during high season) beaches - once its crowning glory - the low light of Thailand. Such is the over, unmanaged and clearly unsustainable development of Phi Phi, Phuket, Ko Samui, et. al. It is truly sad how these paradises have changed over the years along the Pattaya model.
A further key issue with Thailand is, and this needs to be put very carefully, some of the other travellers you encounter. Many are very young, aggressive, arrogant, naive and intolerant to others + local customs. The Thai tourist industry is smart enough [commercially] to know what many of the young crowds heading to Thailand want and caters to it heavily in hot spots. Expect to overhear some very naive conversations, be woken up by drunken groups and find all too many jaded locals working in the tourist industry.
Hot/cold, wet and dry: Hot and humid most of the time of the year, best during Nov/Dec/Jan, but this is equally the most crowded time (then it's always tourist central). March to May is extra sticky with 35C the norm. Summer (July/August) is still hot and technically wet season, but not a major hindrance to travel.
Costs: Pretty good value, $30-50 per day, much more if you like to party since beer is quite expensive comparative to the cost of living. It needs to be stated that Thailand has become much more expensive in the past few years. Major resorts have long been more expensive, but now many more places are catching up. Rural Thailand still remains cheap, but on the tourist trail costs are rising and numerous temptations burn money fast. Those coming from Indochina, Nepal/India or Burma might find Thailand a little (and only a little) pricey - though it's still good value by western standards.
Visa strategy: Simply speaking there are two main types of tourist visa for Thailand, but entry requirements do vary for citizens of different countries as you would expect. Generally speaking, if coming from the EU, Israel, North America, Australia or another developed country, two main methods of entry are available for travellers...
Many opt for the conditional 30 day visa exemption stamp on arrival. One of the conditions is that you must be able to prove that you're leaving Thailand by air within 30 days of your arrival. Technically you may need to show the immigration officers flight tickets or e-booking confirmation showing a flight out of the country and 20,000 baht in available funds on arrival before they stamp you in. That said, Thai immigration enforce these rules completely at random. They might check you, they might not. They almost definitely won't check to see if you have the funds, but they may check for proof of onward flights. Based on our experiences of late, unless you look like a hobo, you won't have a problem. More likely if flying to Thailand on a one-way ticket, the issue you will have is with the airline taking you asking for proof of exit upon check-in. More and more airlines now refuse to carry you to Thailand in the first place if you can't produce a valid visa or proof of onward flights when checking in at your departure airport. Simply confirming you have an exit flight, but 'don't have the details with you' normally works, so does a little bit of text forging on an e-ticketing confirmation just to pacify zealous check-in staff. If entering Thailand on an open-jaw, the airline won't give you a hard time on check-in.
And lastly once in Thailand a short extension to the 30 day visa exemption may only be granted for a fee, but they aren't a God given right despite what you may read or hear elsewhere.
The second option is a tourist visa (in advance) valid for 60 days. You can also buy double and triple entry tourist visas, with each entry also entitling you to 60 days. Tourist visas can be extended for varying lengths, at varying number of times and varying costs.
You'll be fined if you overstay any visa. To extend free of charge, leave the country, turn around and re-enter Thailand under the 30 day visa exemption rule mentioned above. A plus point of this method is that proof of onward flights is never checked for at land borders, so you can walk back in no questions asked. However, time limits govern how long you're permitted to stay in Thailand under the visa exemption rule, with the current limit being a maximum of 90 days in any 180 day period starting when you first arrive. In the past 18 months, Thai authorities have tightened up visa requirements and even changed the regulations considerably and they'll probably be changing again soon, with the advent of the new collaboration visas with other SE Asian countries. Whereas Thailand is far from difficult when it comes to visas, it is also wise to check what the situation and read the comprehensive info here on a Thai consulate web page.
Dangers: Some petty theft and druggings, but not that common, loads of little scams and crimes of opportunity due to large tourist numbers. Theft of passports and credit cards has been reported as a major problem, but then again so have lady boys! Bangkok can be a little painful with plenty of individuals feeding you misinformation in order to steer you to a shop or other opportunity to make money. So always double check information. It's more of an annoyance rather than a danger.
The southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and Songkhla have been considered unsafe due to militant activities, explosions and government fire fights. So check the situation before you go and don't hang around any hot spots unnecessarily.
Typical tourist trail: Bangkok to Chang Mai (return to) Bangkok to the Samui archipelago to Ko Tao or Phuket to Malaysia. There are some good sample popular itineraries and a lot of good information on travelfish's Thailand page.
Money: ATMs - which are very plentiful (but will always charge a fee on-top of that from your own bank). Any hard currency cash or travellers cheques change easily in larger towns and major traveller destinations.
Getting around: Thailand has great trains and buses - cheap, fast and simple to use. Moving around key tourist destinations in Thailand could not be easier. In any areas that sees a substantial amount of travellers you will see outside travel agents, cafes, bars, guesthouse, etc. boards listing numerous destinations, prices and departure times. Everyone seems to be selling transport (as an agent) in tourist hotspots.
Should you want to avoid paying the agents commission, tickets are easy to arrange directly from the train or bus stations, it is not too hard. It is worth noting that given the ease you can take/arrange transport it is no wonder that the destination names always seen on the 'where to go next' boards are so developed and popular. In fact if you really wanted to get the best from Thailand and not run into thousands Danes, Russians, Brits, etc. - you might consider the boards as destinations best avoided!
To move around cheaply, see fewer other travellers and travel on a limited budget take 'fan' buses on short to medium journeys - if you leave early in the morning, it's normally cool enough. Plus third class trains - these take a bit longer than AC buses but are great and a cheap way to move. For example: Khorat to Bangkok costs B50 on ordinary third class train (6 hours), B78 on ordinary bus (5 hours) or B139 on AC bus (4 hours).
Be aware: To reach many tourist destinations you can get privately organised bus and minibus transport. Agents who sell tickets will tell you what you want to hear re: length of trip, quality and number of passengers. Most notorious are Bangkok to Siem Reap buses. Think about it; if your ticket is costing half the price of a public service ticket, you're going to get at least 50% quality and a pretty shit journey - be warned.
To and from Bangkok Airport: Since Bangkok is a major stop over it is worth mentioning that airport buses run from 0430 to 0030 and the fare is about 150B per person. There is a direct
and regular bus to the Khao San Rd and plenty of information and advice at the airport to point you in the right direction. This is the best option if going to the Khao San Rd and you'll meet others while waiting or on the bus.
There is now a nice new high speed train from the airport. This is a great option to get into town, but it won't take you directly to the Khao San Rd. If you want to take the train, better to jump on the non-express line (the City Line) and get out at Phaya Thai (if on the Express line it is further away and just get out at the last stop). Here are the details and route. From there jump in a taxi (drivers understand 'Khao San' better than 'Khao San Road' - and there is normally a taxi dispatcher at the station). It is almost certain that there will be someone else on the train going that way and don't be afraid to ask to share. It's not far to Backpacker central. A taxi will be metered, a tuk-tuk/motorbike you'll need to bargain for. Note - we had recently found when arriving in rush hour (most of the time in Bangkok it seems) that it can be a long wait for a taxi and the only solution is to wait or squeeze (with your bag) onto a motorcycle taxi.
Late at night a taxi is best from the airport (better with someone else), ignore any touts inside the terminal. Leave the terminal and follow the signs for 'Taxi' to get to the rank (it's really close to the exit - you will see it from the terminal door), walk over and tell the attendant where you are going. They'll write it down on a form and give it to you. Make sure the meter is on and off you go. If a driver refuses to put the meter on, or turns it off, tell him to take you back to the rank, or just get out and get another taxi - be firm. You will however have to pay the motorway toll if you travel into the city by this route, so don't be surprised if you are asked for some cash halfway through your journey. It's worth noting that the info and tourist advice desk in the airport is first class and if in doubt they can help with many matters.
Motorbikes: Can be rented in any larger town and with care, are a great way to tour country routes.
Trains: Are cheap, easy, comfortable during the day and night (if a little cold at times) and let you see the country as you experience it, for more details see Thai Train System Explained
Internal and international (local) flights: Air Asia and other carriers have a good and very reasonable network to KL, Chiang Mai, Penang, Siem Reap, Hanoi and beyond. Internal flights are equally pretty cheap. You can book yourself on the internet.
Locals: Generally nice, always smiling, but can get a little tourist-weary. The Thai are a proud race and this can result in some frosty behaviour toward travellers who don't show respect to it or to all tourists in general by some.
Other travellers: Increasingly many package holiday makers and those in early teens- almost every type of traveller it seems ends up in Bangkok at some time! Most notable however are the number of Danes and Scandinavians. Around the southern beach hot spots expect at some point to run into some of the worst types of independent travellers. As with India and Brazil, you can expect a large number of young Israeli and Russian travellers. Also expect to see a large number of (young and old) guys with Thai girls.
Tourist factor: 9/10
Communications: Slightly expensive international call centres. Good internet on the mainland and ADSL connections can even be found on popular islands such as Ko Pha Ngan. Post good value - best to send parcels at the 'slow air' (SAL) rate which is half the price of regular Air and usually take much less than the 1.5 months delivery time announced, in particularly if you register it (an additional B25) and put an airmail sticker on the package.
URL: As mentioned Travel Fish - it's a great resource with good FAQ for first timers. Also see http://www.thai-experience.org for festival dates and volunteering. There is actually so much great information on the web regarding Thailand that it can't all be included here.
Rooms of a normal Asian standard, great value away from main tourist attractions and conversely steadily rising prices in main tourist haunts (popular beaches and islands and of course the Khao San road in Bangkok).
Hot water: Not common, if on the cheap
Average cost: Various, normally under $10-20. Sleeping on the cheap it's normally possible to find a bed under five bucks, but expect low standards.
The Khaosan Road (Banglampoo - map), - love it or hate it - really is backpacker central not just for Thailand, but for the whole of South East Asia. A Disney-land to generation after generation of travellers. It's really just one rather small and shabby street in a very big, fascinating city, which offers a lot of budget-priced accommodation and services for travellers. Like everywhere in Thailand as the country's popularity rose and backpackers flooded in, its growth has been phenomenal and just keeps going. Those who visited even a few years back would find some parts unrecognisable, as big hotels and yet more delights to service a backpacker's every need go up. The development on the streets behind the Khao San Road (across the street from the police station and past the temple) is particularly notable; these used to be recommended as better, cheaper, quieter options, but no longer.
Worth mentioning is that the Khao San Road (which after all many travellers will want to stay on) can get very full even early in the day during peak seasons and although you can normally find 'something' it might take a fair bit of searching - solution: if dead set to stay in a nice place in the heart of it all, you might want to book ahead. There are tonnes of options, but right in the heart of it D&D is as good a first place as any to land and given the huge sign it's easy to find.
Away from Bangkok and the Khao San Road, a good range of accommodation is easy to find (apart from popular beach resorts during Christmas and a few other times of the year), although as mentioned 'above the rock bottom' (aka slightly nicer places) rates are slowly rising and standards dropping. AC is nice in the hot season, but comes at a price. If sleeping in beach huts which are common on Thailand's islands/beaches, make sure they are secure.
Opium available in hill tribe areas and amphetamines available on the Samui archipelago. Grass is always widely available, but buying in a big city (such as Bangkok) is not recommended as random police checks do happen. The Samui archipelago has always been the centre of Thailand's backpacker recreational drugs scene, but police are much stricter than in the past and especially at full moon parties. Twenty years ago you could order a magic mushroom omelette straight off a menu and the smell of grass filled the air. Okay if you look hard enough you can still find mushrooms, 'magic' lassis and 'special' cookies on Ko Pha Ngan and other laid back beaches/islands. Grass always seems to be available on backpacker frequented beaches. Nevertheless as Thailand's popularity has rocketed the police have become stricter and stricter. If you must indulge, be discreet and don't get blasé. Thousands of overseas visitors are prosecuted for drug offences every year in Thailand. Full moon parties are notorious for attracting undercover police. Running around trying to buy grass, acid or ecstasy off complete strangers at 2 AM on a beach is not recommended. Having said that you still see loads of people doing it (maybe they are the same ones you see getting arrested later). Be aware that Methamphetamines are often passed off as ecstasy and speed as cocaine and sudden deaths have occurred at full moon parties. If you do buy drugs, do yourself a favour and don't travel with them as the penalties if caught are even higher. If you grew out of all this years ago or simply aren't interested, it's worth skipping these islands as there are nicer places in Thailand/Asia with fewer idiots.
Beer is expensive in comparison with other costs in Thailand. A 660ml local bottle costs half the price of a basic guesthouse room (about B50). But maybe this means that rooms are cheap...
Full moon party expected dates: (2016)
Thursday 12, January; Saturday 11, February; Saturday 11, March
Dates do sometimes change due to Buddhist Holidays. This is now a commercialised event.
TV: New release movies played in cafes and restaurants. If paying a little more for a room (mid-range standard), a TV with numerous international satellite channels is fairly common in tourist centres.
Food: Great, but can be very spicy - eat off the street for best food. Banana pancakes may well be the tastiest food on earth. Seafood excellent.
Vegetarians: No problem. If unsure you can always ask for 'Buddhist' meals or use the magic word. The magical word is 'jeh' (said like 'jay' quickly). As in 'song Pad Thai jeh' - two vegetarian pad thais.
Guidebook: Various, available in Bangkok (but not cheaper than at home) No recommendations, you don't really need one on the beaten track. Plus both the Rough Guide and LP are far from brilliant. Click here for a good list of Thai links.
What to take: You might hear a lot about taking your own padlock. The reason for this is that the doors of some hotel rooms, normally the cheaper ones, lock only with a padlock. Take one for sure, but you will find that most budget places insist that you use their padlock (don't lose the key - they will charge you the earth). You can always chain your bag to the bed, but if the place really feels that dodgy, stay elsewhere. See the what to pack section for all the normal recommendations.
Hassle and annoyance factor: Very limited, some beggars and touts. Anyone with half a brain will tell you not to buy drugs off tuk-tuk drivers or gems off their best mate/uncle.
Women alone: Lone female travellers are fairly common. Be careful at night and in bars where drink drugging have occurred (Ko Phan Ngan has the current reputation).
Brunei: is essentially a fairly expensive side-trip, if in East Malaysia. The capital a good 8-9 hours from East Malysia has enough to hold your attention for not much more than a a few hours. Outside of the city there are minor attractions, but nothing amazing unless rundown theme parks and mosques are your thing. There is no achool and a very different vibe to else where in SE Asia. Cheapest hotel room ~US$30. Day trip into the rain forest and tree top walk-ways require a tour and will set you back ~US$80-100.
East Timor: One of the world'd newest country's and a great chance to leave the crowds behind and find truely friendly locals and genuine experince, akind to Burma opr Loas in the 1990s. Flights from Bali, Dawin and (sometimes) Singapore. Limited hotel options outside a few major points. Ataúru island an easy trip from Dili (although limited and expensive accomodation) and for the more adventous Baucau (transport to Jaco Island) are the major focuses.
Papa New Guinea:
Where the Banana Pancake Trail crowds really thin out, a great alternative destination, but difficult to get around. Port Moresby has a bad reputation and is not inviting. No onward overland transport to Australia.
One of the best sources of planning information on Asia is Trailblazer's 'Asia Overland', although the Cambodia/Burma chapter is very out-of-date. However there is a new version of this book out that focuses just on South East Asia. It is a fantastic guide made up of hand-drawn maps packed with great information. It's called South-East Asia: A Graphical Guide and is by the same author as Asia Overland - Mark Elliott, however it is now also out of print, but check Amazon and similar as second-hand copies do float around.
For a full list of planning guides, recommended guide books and reading material, please click here.
Remember, this is only a take (an overview if you will); very few get the chance to see every inch of every country or have the time to get everyone's opinion (you are welcome and encouraged to mail in yours). Please, please if you have been anywhere recently send your comments to contribute and help keep all information fresh for future travellers. Or if you are about to head off remember this site when you return and put a few lines in an e-mail to let us know if things have changed.
"A short pen is better than a long memory"